Wednesday, March 27, 2013

WAIT UNTIL DARK 1967

Before there really was such a thing as a high-concept movie, in 1967 Warner Bros. released this doozy of a nail-biter whose intriguingly unorthodox casting and high-concept thriller premise resulted in lines around the block and a boxoffice ranking as 16th highest-grossing film of the year. The film: Wait Until Dark. The casting: All the heavies are played by actors best known for comedy roles. The concept: Somebody wants to kill Holly Golightly!
Audrey Hepburn as Susy Hendrix
Alan Arkin as Harry Roat, Jr.
Richard Crenna as Mike Talman
Jack Weston as Sgt. Carlino
Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Sam Hendrix
As if drawn to the theater for the collective purpose of forming a militia in her defense, sixties audienceslong-accustomed to spending a pleasant evening being charmed by the winsome, doe-eyed, Belgian gamine of Sabrina and Breakfast at Tiffany'sturned out in droves to witness Hepburn as a defenseless blind woman tormented by a gang of sleazy, drug-dealing, New York thugs. The Old-Hollywood zeitgeist had shifted in a big way! And if you don’t think placing cinema’s much-beloved eternal ingénue within harm’s way is a concept both incendiary and controversial, you must have missed the 2010 online war raged against Emma Thompson when she dared to utter but a few disparaging remarks about everyone’s favorite sylphlike waif.
Thompson, at the time writing a since-shelved remake of My Fair Lady, drew the heated ire of millions when she expressed the opinion that Hepburn couldn't sing and “Can’t really act.” Ignorant or indifferent to the fact that, at least on this side of the pond, anyone trash-talking Audrey Hepburn is just begging for a major ass-whippin’; Thompson made herself no friends in Hepburn camps. There's no reason to believe there's any connection between this public outcry and the fact that Thompson's My Fair Lady reup hit a snag, but if there’s one thing Audrey Hepburn elicits from movie fans, it’s the near-unanimous desire to shield and protect her. A quality exploited to entertainingly nerve-racking effect in Wait Until Dark.
What did they want with her?
Poster art for Wait Until Dark prominently featured the image of a screaming Audrey Hepburn accompanied by the above tagline.  Yikes!

From the moment I first saw her in Roman Holiday, I've always thought of Audrey Hepburn’s screen persona as akin to that of a butterfly. A creature so exquisitely fragile and beautiful that you couldn't bear seeing harm come to it. Sure, Hepburn was drolly menaced in Charade, and most certainly, pairing the then 27-year-old Hepburn with 57-year-old Fred Astaire in Funny Face constitutes some form of romantic terrorism; but for the most part, Audrey Hepburn has always seemed to me to be a woman far too adorable and classy for anybody to mess with.
That being said, I don’t number myself among her fans who would have been happy to have seen her continue along the path of taking on the same role in film after film. When Hepburn made the heist comedy How to Steal a Million in 1966, she was 36 years old, a wife and mother, yet still playing the sort of girlish role she virtually trademarked in the fifties. While that particular comedy revealed Hepburn in fine form and as radiant as ever, it was nevertheless becoming clear that in a world making way for Barbarella, Bonnie Parker, and Myra Breckinridge; it was high time for the Cinderella pixie image to be laid to rest.
Taking on the role of the tormented blind woman in Wait Until Dark was a concentrated effort on Hepburn's part to broaden her range and break the mold of her ingénue image. Earlier that same year Hepburn appeared to spectacular effect opposite Albert Finney in Stanley Donen’s bittersweet look at a troubled marriage, Two for the Road. Giving perhaps the most nuanced, adult performance of her career, Hepburn in modern mode revealed a surprising depth of emotional maturity that signaled, at least for a time, she might be one of the few Golden Age Hollywood stars able to make the transition to the dressed-down '70s. While Two for the Road ultimately proved too arty and downbeat for popular tastes, Wait Until Dark was a resounding boxoffice success and garnered the Oscar-winning actress her fifth Academy Award nomination.
Wait Until Dark was adapted from the hit 1966 Broadway play by Frederick Knott (Dial M for Murder) which starred Lee Remick in the role that won her a best Actress Tony nomination. Recreating the role she originated on Broadway, actress Julie Harrod (above) portrays Gloria, the bratty but ultimately resourceful upstairs neighbor.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I really love a good thriller. And good thrillers are awfully hard to come by these days. When a suspense thriller succeeds in its objectives to send a chill up my spine, keep me guessing, or, better yet, induce me to spend a restless evening sleeping with all the lights on…well, I’m pretty much putty in its hands and will willingly follow where I’m led. Wait Until Dark does a marvelous job of duplicating the formula that worked so well for Ira Levin in both Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, two of my all-time favorite suspense thrillers. Wait Until Dark takes a vulnerable female character (a woman recently blinded in a car accident, just learning to to adapt to her loss of sight); pits her against an enemy whose degree of malevolence and severity of intent she is slow to recognize (Susy is the unwitting possessor of a heroin-filled doll her tormentors are willing to kill for); and (most importantly) takes the time to develop its characters and methodically build suspense so as best to encourage empathy and audience identification. Simple in structure, yet rare in its ability to sustain tension while providing plenty of nightmare fodder, Wait Until Dark is one of those scary movies that still packs a punch even after repeat viewings.
When it comes to strict adherence to logic, most psychological thrillers don't hold up to too-close scrutiny. Wait Until Dark is no exception. Plot points and theatrical devices that play well on the stage don't always translate to the hyper-realistic world of motion pictures. But when a thriller is as fast-paced and full of spook-house fun as Wait Until Dark, head-scratchers like the one above (I won't give anything away, you'll have to see the film) won't hit you until long after your pulse has returned to normal and the film has ended. 

PERFORMANCES
A while back I wrote about how refreshing it was to see Elizabeth Taylor tackle her first suspense thriller with 1973’s Night Watch. In thinking back to 1967 and my first time seeing Audrey Hepburn’s genre debut in Wait Until Dark, the word that comes to mind is traumatizing. Yes, it was quite the shock seeing MY Audrey Hepburn keeping such uncouth company and being treated so loutishly in a film without benefit of a Cary Grant or Givenchy frock for consolation. Like everybody else, I had fallen in love with Audrey Hepburn’s frail vulnerability in Funny Face and My Fair Lady, so seeing her brutalized for a good 90 minutes was a good deal more than I was ready for at the tender age of ten. 
Javier Bardem's creepy psychopath of No Country for Old Men owes perhaps a nod to Alan Arkin's equally tonsorially-challenged, undies-sniffing nutjob in Wait Until Dark

Over the years, my shock over Hepburn’s deviation from type has given way to an appreciation of the skill of her performance here. Actors never seem to be given the proper credit for the realistic conveyance of fear and anxiety, yet I can't think of a single thriller or horror film that has ever worked for me if the lead is unable to convince me that he/she is in genuine fear for their life. Audrey Hepburn delves deep into her character and unearths not only mounting apprehension at her circumstances, but taps into the frustration and helplessness the character feels when confronted with the obstacles her lack of sight place on her means and options of escape and self-defense. Hepburn is the emotional linchpin to the entire movie, and she is incredibly affecting and sympathetic. Without benefit of those expressive eyes of hers (she somehow allows them to go blank, yet finds ways to have all manner of complex emotions play out over her face and through her body language) Hepburn keeps us locked within the reality of the film. Even when the plot takes a few turns into the improbable (once again, my lips are sealed!). 
60's model Samantha Jones (yes, Sex and the City fans, there IS a real one) plays Lisa, the inadvertent catalyst for all the trouble that erupts in Wait Until Dark. Jones' fabulously '60s big-hair, big-fur, slightly cheap glamour seems to have been borrowed by Barbra Streisand's prostitute ("I may be a prostitute, but I'm not promiscuous!") in 1970s The Owl and the Pussycat.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Having been born too late to experience the mayhem attendant the release of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho with that famed shower scene, I'm therefore thrilled to have had the experience of actually seeing Wait Until Dark during its original theatrical run, when exhibitors turned out all of the theater lights during the film's final eight minutes. Jesus H. Christ! Such a thunderous chorus of screams I'd never heard before in my life! My older sister practically kicked the seat in front of her free of its moorings. At least I think so. I was on the ceiling at the time. Without giving anything away, I'll just say that while that experience has since been duplicated at screenings I've attended of the films Jaws, The OmenCarrie, and Alien; it has never been equaled. At least not in my easily-rattled book.
I hope William Castle appreciated the irony
At the exact moment director William Castle - the great granddad of horror gimmickry - was making a bid for legitimacy with Rosemary's Baby, Wait Until Dark, a major motion picture with an A-list cast, was attracting rave notices and sellout crowds employing a promotional gambit straight out of his B-movie marketing playbook.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Audrey Hepburn ventured into the damsel-in-distress realm just once more in her career (with this film's director, Terence Young, no less). Unfortunately, it was in the jumbled mess that was Bloodline (1979). An absolutely dreadful and nonsensical film I've seen, oh, about 7 times. As theatrical thrillers go, Wait Until Dark is not up there with Sleuth or Deathtrap in popularity, but it does get revived now and then. Most recently, a poorly-received 1998 Broadway version with Marisa Tomei and Quentin Tarantino, of all people. In 1982 there was a cable-TV adaptation starring Katherine Ross and Stacy Keach that I actually recall watching, but, perhaps tellingly, I can't remember a single thing about.
As a kid, I only knew Jack Weston from the silly comedies Palm Springs Weekend and The Incredible Mr. Limpett. Richard Crenna I knew from TV sitcoms like Our Miss Brooks and The Real McCoys. Producer Mel Ferrer (Mr. Audrey Hepburn at the time) is credited with casting these two talented actors against type to disconcerting and bone-chilling effect

When people speak of Wait Until Dark, it is invariably the Audrey Hepburn version that's referenced, and it's this film to which all subsequent adaptations, like it or not, must be compared. Even when removed from the fun exploitation gimmick of  the darkened theater and the novelty of seeing Hepburn in an atypical, non-romantic role, Wait Until Dark holds up remarkably well. Delivering healthy doses of edge-of-the-seat suspense and jump-out-of-your-seat surprises, it's a solid, well-crafted  thriller with a talented cast delivering first-rate performances (save for Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., who just does his usual, bland, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.thing).
Still, it's Audrey Hepburn—age 37, inching her way toward adult roles who is the real marvel here. Being a movie star of the old order, one whose stock-in-trade has been the projection of her personality upon every role; Hepburn is never fully successful in making us stop thinking at times as if we're watching Tiffany's Holly Golighty, Charade's Regina Lampert, or Roman Holiday's Princess Ann caught up in some Alice-through-the-looking-glass nightmare. But in these days of so-called "movie stars" who scarcely register anything onscreen beyond their own narcissism, I'm afraid I'm going to favor the actress whose sweetly gentle nature has shone through in every role she's ever assumed. That's a real and genuine talent, in and of itself.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

10 comments:

  1. I enjoyed reading this entire thing, especially the part about the model looking like Barbra Streisand and the advertisement about the final 8 minutes in darkness, but my favorite line of all was this snorter: "most certainly, pairing the then 27-year-old Hepburn with 57-year-old Fred Astaire in Funny Face constitutes some form of romantic terrorism" LOLOL! She also had to go up against a rather "up there" Gary Cooper at one point, too! Great appreciation of a classic movie, as always...

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    1. Boy, one of the things every Audrey Hepburn fan has to endure is the fact that she was cast so often as the romantic interest of men old enough to be her father. The men themselves are a dynamic bunch (Bogart, Cooper, Astaire, Holden, Grant) but I know more than a couple of female fans of Hepburn who find the practice a bit icky.
      I think that's one reason she seems so sexy opposite Albert Finney...she made a very appealing other woman!
      I thought about you, Poseidon, when I made that screencap of Samantha Jones...I know you have a fondness for 60s hair (although this 'do' is rather tame by 60s glamour standards). Glad you enjoyed the post!!

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  2. What a year Audrey H. had in 1967 - "Two for the Road" and "Wait Until Dark." Wow!
    They obviously didn't believe in the notion of too much of a good thing way back then. The following year Steve McQueen starred in both "The Thomas Crown Affair" and "Bullitt."
    It's interesting that Hepburn stopped making movies for several years right at one of the peaks of her career. I believe she didn't return until "Robin and Marian" nine years later.
    I saw "Wait Until Dark" at a big theater in downtown Philly and still remember that big scream at the end. Haven't heard anything to equal it since.

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    1. Hi Joe
      I haven't read much about Audrey Hepburn's life (i'm sure you could tell me), but from what little I HAVE read, Hepburn's private life was at its unhappiest at the time her professional life showed the most promise. The dissolution of her marriage, her devotion to her son...I wonder how much a part it played in her nine-year absence?
      Still, as you point out, there aren't many actresses who could boast a year in film like Hepburn could in 1967. She was amazing in both of these films.
      I'm glad to hear you too have a memory of seeing "Wait Until Dark" at the theater. That scream moment was amazing! Thanks, Joe. Still flattered as hell that you read my posts!

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  3. Ken, I'm a major fan of Audrey Hepburn. Not only did she patent that image of graceful delicacy that you likened to a butterfly, but she had a remarkable record in her short career both for giving good performances and for appearing in good films. In "Wait Until Dark" you picked a great film to illustrate this idea. I hadn't seen it in years, but when I rewatched it a couple of years back I liked it a great deal--more than I had expected to. For some reason, even though the setting is pretty much limited to one apartment and the film's structure is clearly that of something written for the stage, it still struck me as a really good MOVIE. I think your discussion of all the great performances explains a great deal of the film's appeal. The whole thing revolves, of course, around Hepburn's damsel in distress (which you covered thoroughly), but Arkin is truly perverse and scary as the psycho menacing her. I also especially liked the girl who played the bratty neighbor and was intrigued to read she was a carryover from the Broadway production.

    By the way, after reading a reference to "Two for the Road" here not too long ago, I saw it at the library and was inspired to pick it up and watch it. I'd seen in once before quite awhile ago, but in the rewatching, it also made a very strong impression on me. As you said, that was two exceptional performances by Hepburn in one year, and in two exceptional movies that couldn't be less alike! And Hepburn also had the good sense to retire while she was at her peak. I think that's why her appeal hasn't dated. We never saw her outstay her welcome and become stale and outdated as so many actresses have become when they outgrew ingenue roles. She knew what she did best, and she knew how to exit gracefully before her run was over.

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    1. Hi R.D.
      The point you make about the quality of Hepburn's films combined with her delivering solid performances in all of them, speaks a great deal towards her untarnished appeal to people today. I hadn't thought about it, but I can't help but agree that her retiring at her peak (returning to do just a few films... most of which her fans have probably never seen:Bloodline, Robin & Marian,They All Laughed) did her "image" a great deal of good. A graceful exit, as you rightly put it, is exactly what we would come to expect from Hepburn.
      You're the first person to call attention to how cinematic Wait Until Dark feels in spite of its stage origins. It was inspired to have the director responsible for the first James Bond films handle such an intimate movie, but he does wonders with "Wait Until Dark"'s small set and claustrophobic atmosphere. The performances definitely carry the day, but it's positively ingenious how the play has been so seamlessly opened up.
      By the way, I'm glad you watched "Two for the Road" again. That movie...it never gets old for me. thanks for the well-considered comments, R.D.

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  4. The way you described you and your sister's reaction to "The Moment" near the end of the film gave me the best laugh I've had in months. I also saw the movie during its first run in the company of a female friend. Suspecting that something would happen to evoke screams, I advised her to cover her mouth with her hand so she wouldn't scream in my ear. In the seconds preceding "The Moment" she grabbed my hand, held it to her mouth and took a bite and I screamed!

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    1. Ha! That is great! I love that you saw this at the theater as well. It's a great feeling of fun to be so caught up in a movie that it can have such an effect on you. The older I get and the more familiar with movie tropes i become, those experiences become rarer and rarer.
      Still...I enjoy searching for films that can create that sort of naivete in me. Thanks for sharing your terrific anecdote!

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  5. Hi Ken! This is my first visit to your blog (came her from Poseidon's Underworld. Just happen to click on Audrey's name and saw your post about Wait Until Dark, one of my sisters and mine favorites. We too saw the film in the theatre in Pittsburgh. I think I was 7 (what were my parents thinking?)and it scared me to the core. I STILL leave a light on when I leave my house sdo I don't come home to a dark house. I agree with you as to the physicality that Audrey uses to great effect and I also think she uses that beautiful voice of hers as well. To my ear, she had added a real steeliness to it. The supporting roles are expert. Just the site of Jack Weston and Richard Crenna gave me PTSD-like flashbacks for years. And I still to this day am frightened to death of Alan Arkin. It's sad but I have never really been able to appreciate this wonderful actor's career because to me he will always be Mr. Rote.

    Sorry for the long comment. I am looking forward to discovering more of your blog. PS. I always enjoy reading your comments on Poseidon's blog!

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    1. Hi Roberta!
      Thanks for stopping by! Always nice to hear from another Hepburn fan.
      I can't imagine how terrifying this film must have seemed to a 7-year-old! When I was little, the whole idea of one's home being a safe haven was what it was all about. Movies like this can totally shatter a child's sense of safety, resulting in kindertrauma of the most severe sort.
      It's fun to be scared by movies, but BOY! can they stick with you.

      Your lasting resistance to Alan Arkin is fully understandable!
      As much I like Audrey n her early, gamine roles, I do have a preference for her in this and "Two for the Road"...the mature Audrey was really something else.

      So appreciate your sharing your memories here,and I hope you feel free to contribute to any post, no mater how old. I usually get to them.
      Thank you for your kind words and amusing recollections!

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